An opera worth waiting for

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By Alicia Solomon

An old saying goes, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” and last Saturday night we found out again how true old sayings are and how worth waiting for this great lady is.  

In the final opening of the Santa Fe Opera season, Christine Brewer was luminous in the title role of Queen Alceste, an opera by Bohemian Christoph Willibald Gluck, first produced in Paris the year our Declaration of Independence was signed.

Brewer, barefoot in a simple, translucent-black-over-red floor length gown under a luxuriously draping black robe with red trim, was an opera goddess. Every time she opened her mouth, billows of magnificent sound poured out over the enraptured audience.  

And I, for one, was delightfully relieved by the simplicity of direction that allowed her to stand (or often sit) downstage and deliver her arias in all their exquisite completeness, accompanied visually by an equally wonderful troupe of dancers: Selena Elaine Chau, Veronica Guadalupe, Kristin Osler, Ana Yepes (the choreographer), Andrew Eldridge, Carlos Fittante and Kyle Lang. Hooray! Finally, a ballet opera, in the very best tradition!

Whether melting out of the black-draped Greek chorus of citizens, their simple tunics betraying only a hint of brick-red around the edges, or as cavorting minions of the gods in fabulous, indescribable Bob Mackey- meets- Mad Max- meets-Gustav Klimt costumes, the dancers were an integral part of the show and absolutely marvelous.  

Spanish choreographer Ana Yepes’ strange yet beautiful style perfectly expressed the emotions of the libretto in the neo-ancient feeling of the production; distant past or distant future, human love and sacrifice remain fundamental.

Tenor Paul Groves made a strong SFO debut as King Admete, his persona and voice ringing with passion and good technique.  

In a casting coup, almost all the remaining supporting players were consistently excellent apprentices - watch for these young stars on the rise: baritone Nicholas Pallesen; (mezzo) soprano Jennifer Forni, (a lovely foil for Brewer’s spinto); tenor Aaron Blake; baritone Matthew Morris and bass Tom Corbeil, both Oracle and a deliciously Gene Simmons-ish Infernal God. I hope we will be hearing much more from them in coming years!

The set was two large, grey stone walls, one curving upstage, that pushed together for the scene change to the underworld, to reveal an eerily real-looking painted stairway vanishing up into the distance.

Bravo to French designer Louis Desire for his magnificent, imaginative gods and minions, along with Alceste’s stunning, futuristic/art-deco crown and for achieving more with less in scenery and gracefully simple togas.

The few moments I tore my eyes away from the stage, Santa Fe favorite Irish Maestro Kenneth Montgomery was displaying that wonderful economy of consummate masters, hardly moving his hands at all as the orchestra danced along. Bravo! Bravi tutti to the musicians in the pit and to the chorus of apprentices who have sounded great all season.

Although “L’Elisir” is definitely the feel-good, take-the-kids opera of the summer, my 10-year-old said, “I really liked it,” and “The queen was really good” as we were leaving

“Alceste” about 20 minutes before midnight; and that says it all.  

If she got it, everyone over there is doing a lot of things very right.

 This year we have an extravagant selection of world-class prima donnas of all shapes and sizes; but “La Traviata” (with the divine Natalie Dessay) is sold out and “The Letter” (despite Patricia Racette’s brilliance) can be difficult to listen to.  Don’t miss “Alceste,” with its beautiful music and dance, fantastic costumes and one of the absolutely finest dramatic sopranos singing today, Christine Brewer.